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Article in InternationalJournalofAdvertising·January2009





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International Journal of Advertising

Volume 28, No. 3, 2009

International Journal of Advertising Volume 28, No. 3, 2009

The effect of product placement in computer games on brand attitude and recall

Thomas Mackay, Michael Ewing, Fiona Newton and Lydia Windisch Monash University


American software sales in the computer and video game category reached US$7.4bn in 2006, an increase of 6% (Entertainment Software Association (ESA) 2007a). Overall sales have nearly trebled since 1996 (ESA 2007a). In Australia alone, the predicted value of in-game advertisements has been placed at AU$1.25bn (Manktelow 2005; Schneider & Cornwell 2005). As such, product placement has evolved from the use of products as props supplied freely by organisations to a multi-billion-dollar industry driven by commercial companies seeking new avenues to promote their brands (Delorme & Reid 1999; Nelson et al. 2004; Shea 2004). For instance, Coca-Cola recently announced its intention to move advertising resources away from television advertising and towards video games and DVDs (Grover et al. 2004). Similarly, a multi-game deal was reached in 2006 between game developer Midway and advertiser Double Fusion, emphasising Midway's desire to expand its use of in-game advertising (The Edge 2006).

The increase in computer/video game technology has provided marketers with the opportunity to create accurate simulations of their products in games. Games, such as the driving simulator Gran Turismo 4 (Polyphony Digital 2005), afford highly realistic scenarios that could be equated with a real-world 'test drive' of a particular product. Automotive marketers have shown enthusiasm for the opportunity to allow members of the community to interact with their products in the medium of computer games (Hill 2005). For instance, the game Porsche Challenge (Sony Computer Entertainment 1997) coincided with the commercial release of the Porsche Boxster, providing gamers with the opportunity to drive digital representations of the car.

This paper is set out as follows. First, the extant literature on both product placements and computer games is reviewed. Next, we introduce and explicate Ehrenberg's so-called 'weak theory of advertising', and draw on it to ground the research hypotheses. The experimental design is then described, results presented, findings discussed and implications considered. In closing, study limitations are noted, future research directions outlined and conclusions drawn.


Computer games are emerging as a new medium for advertising. Nevertheless, there has been relatively little empirical and independent research examining the outcomes of marketing communications using this medium, yet there have been calls from in-game advertisement placement agencies for empirical evidence to support the use of product placement in computer games (Enright 2007). In a study of the effects on brand recall of product placement in games, Nelson (2002) found that 19 out of 20 participants spontaneously recalled the brand of car they drove during the game, although recall declined to zero after a post-play delay of five months. Participant recall of the brands featured within the game was approximately 25–30% of the brands immediately after game play, yet recall declined by more than half when participants were retested five months post-play (10–15% recall). While these findings should be interpreted with caution given the small sample size, high attrition rate and lack of control for regularity of play, the results suggest that recall of brand placements may not be long term.

One of the factors that may affect recall is the prominence of the product placement. Using a sample of 46 male Australian university students, Schneider and Cornwell (2005) found that participants were more likely to recall products that were placed in prominent positions rather than more subtly placed products. These findings align with Lee and Faber's (2008) later results for products placed either centrally or peripherally in an online car racing game, and with Gupta and Lord's (1998) results based on film and TV viewer responses to product placement. Gupta and Lord (1998) found that recall was greater when products were large, placed in a central position on the screen and integrated into the onscreen action. Qualitative research on product placement in movies has also found that consumers appreciated realistic use of branded products, were more likely to notice familiar products and responded more favourably to brands that were used by characters to whom they could relate (Delorme & Reid 1999).

Taking an alternative approach, Yang et al. (2006) examined the differences in brand product recall in terms of explicit and implicit memory. The authors argued that explicit measures of in-game advertising may underestimate the power of this advertising medium, as gamers are frequently exposed to brand placements without being consciously aware of them. Using a word-fragment task to assess implicit memory, the authors found participants had higher levels of implicit memory for brand placement than actual brand recognition (explicit memory).

There has also been some research examining consumer attitudes towards in-game product placements. Nelson (2002) reported that participants were generally positive about the practice and did not perceive that it disrupted their experience of the game used in the study. Indeed, in certain situations some participants have reported that the use of product placements enhances the realism of the game, suggesting that the medium may add value to the gaming experience. In a later study, Nelson et al. (2004) found a positive association between player attitudes towards product placement and advertising in general. Research examining consumer attitudes to product placement in other media supports the contention that consumers are more positively disposed towards brand placements relative to more traditional forms of advertising (Nebenzahl & Secunda 1993). Nebenzahl and Secunda (1993) found that product placement was rated favourably by 70% of movie-goers, significantly higher than ratings for pre-movie advertisements.

A gap in the current literature relates to the issue of whether brand placements in computer/video games can shift pre-existing consumer attitudes towards a specific brand. Research findings suggest a strong association between consumer attitude towards a brand (A brand ) and

their purchase intentions (Anand & Sternthal 1990; LeClerc & Little 1997; Spears & Singh 2004).


Adherents of the 'weak theory of advertising' contend that the primary role of television advertising (TVA) is brand reinforcement by reminding existing customers to buy the brand (Jones 1996; Barnard & Ehrenberg 1997). Ehrenberg (1974) argued that consumers typically only pay attention to advertising of brands for which they have a pre-existing favourable attitude. As such, repetitive advertising could best be construed as a defensive strategy useful in reinforcing brand loyalty (see Ewing & Jones 2000). Further empirical evidence was provided by Rice and Bennett (1998). These authors found that users of 'Brand A had higher awareness and more positive attitudes towards advertisements for Brand A than non-users of the brand. And the corollary holds, too: consumers loyal to Brand B were least likely to respond positively towards advertisements for Brand A. The exception was for consumers who liked Brand A but who had not yet progressed to becoming brand users. These findings reinforce the so-called 'weak theory of advertising' in that users are far more likely to respond favourably to advertisements for a particular brand than non-users. Gary Becker, 1992 Nobel Laureate in Economics, reached the same conclusion, namely that consumers watch advertisements about automobiles (for example) even after they have just purchased an automobile, in order to 're-enjoy' the experience of their own purchase (Becker & Murphy 1993). Indeed, the 'weak theory' holds that advertising is typically not powerful enough to convert non-users or affiliates towards having favourable brand attitude (A brand ) and

purchase intentions. However, it remains to be seen whether this same principle holds true for video and computer games. The aim of the current study is therefore to examine whether product placements in computer games have a 'weak' or 'strong' effect on A brand and

explicit memory – in this instance, brand recall. In line with the 'weak theory of advertising' it is hypothesised that:

H1a: Participants who are positively predisposed towards the brand will become more favourably disposed following exposure to the in- game product placement.

H1b: Participants who are less positively disposed to the brand will not display a change in their brand attitude following exposure to the product placement.

The nexus between pre-existing brand attitude and brand recall is also of interest. Based on the 'weak theory of advertising' it is further expected that participants with positive attitudes towards a particular brand would be more likely to recall this brand than those who are less predisposed towards the same brand.

H2: Participants randomly assigned to the experimental (Holden) group who have a pre-existing high attitude towards this brand will exhibit higher levels of recall than participants with a low pre-existing attitude towards Holden.


A pre-post test experimental design was used to examine spontaneous and prompted recall as well as A brand levels of 154 Australian

university students and members of the general public exposed to either a Holden Monaro 1 or an Audi A4 car embedded in a popular computer game, Gran Turismo 4 (Polyphony Digital 2005). Participants were randomly assigned to either the experimental condition (Holden Monaro) or control condition (Audi A4).


The Spears and Singh (2004) product attitude scale consists of five items scored on six-point Likert scales. The theoretical range of total scores on this scale is 5 to 30. The scales ranged from (i) 1 'extremely unappealing' to 6 'extremely appealing'; (ii) 1 'extremely bad' to 6 'extremely good'; (iii) 1 'extremely unpleasant' to 6 'extremely pleasant'; (iv) 1 'extremely unfavourable' to 6 'extremely favourable'; and (v) 1 'extremely unlikeable' to 6 'extremely likeable'.

Spontaneous recall was assessed using a single item: 'What products or brands do you remember seeing in the game?' Participants were asked to list all car brands they could remember seeing while playing the game. Prompted recall was measured using the following question: 'What brands do you remember seeing in the game? Please tick only the boxes that correspond to brands you clearly remember seeing.' This question was followed by a list of the 21 different brands that appeared in the game as either cars or products placed on virtual billboards. Sociodemographic information was collected with respect to participant age, gender, household income and occupation.


Review and approval of study materials was obtained from the University Ethics Review Board prior to data collection. Recruitment was undertaken using flyers distributed around a university campus and in the broader community. Potential participants were requested to contact the principal researcher. In exchange for their participation, participants received a cinema voucher. Although the participants' liking for playing computer games was not assessed, the recruitment process undertaken in this study clearly promoted this study as a computer game-based experiment. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that participants would have self-selected for this project on the basis of enjoying playing computer games.

All testing was undertaken within the same computer laboratory and each participant completed the experiment on an individual basis. Participation was voluntary and participants were informed that they could cease playing the game at any point. After random allocation, participants completed a pre-game questionnaire that included a measure of Holden attitudes developed from Spears and Singh's (2004) five-item product attitude scale. Foils pertaining to three other car brands – Mitsubishi, Toyota and Ford – were also included to prevent participants from perceiving the purpose of the experiment.

Following group allocation, participants received basic instructions about using a PlayStation 2 controller and how to manoeuvre their game car. During this game orientation period, participants in the Holden test condition were requested to select the 'Holden Monaro' car option and those in the control condition (Control Audi ) were asked to select the 'Audi A4' option. All participants were instructed to select the

colour of their game car from a palette of six colours and to then complete six circuits of the game raceway. All participants completed three laps of the 'Super Speedway' followed by three laps of the 'Clubman Route Stage 5' track. The post-game questionnaire was administered immediately after each participant completed their six race circuits.

Participants randomly allocated to the Holden experimental group were further sub-classified using a median split of pre-game attitudes towards Holden. Participants with scores ranging from 5 to 17 were deemed to be less positively predisposed to the Holden brand and were assigned to the low attitude sub-group (Holden Low ). Conversely, participants scoring in the range 18 to 30 were classified as being more

positively predisposed to Holden and were assigned to the high attitude sub-group (Holden High ).

In accordance with Tabachnick and Fidell (1996), univariate outliers (cases with standard scores greater than ±3.29) were identified within each group and checked for entry errors. As cases with extreme values have the potential to unduly influence the outcomes of the planned analyses, those identified as univariate outliers were deleted to improve the skewness and kurtosis of scale distributions. A total of five outliers were removed, leaving a reduced total data set of 149 cases. Within the experimental condition, 25 participants were classified into the Holden Low sub-group and 63 into the Holden High sub-group. A total of 61 participants were randomly assigned to the control condition

Control Audi . Consenting participants completed a pre-game questionnaire designed to assess their attitude towards specific car brands, and

were classified as either low (Holden Low ) or high (Holden High ) pre-test attitudes towards Holden cars.


The demographic data for participants in the current study are shown in Table 1. One-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) analyses were used to test for differences across the three participant groups: Holden Low , Holden High and Control Audi . The participant groups were similar

with respect to age and income classification. A chi-square analysis was used to explore gender representation across the three participant groups. An adjusted residual greater than 1.96 was indicative of a significant deviation from independence (Agresti & Finlay 1997). The results indicated that males and females were not significantly differently represented across the three groups.

differently represented across the three groups. Table 1: Demographic characteristics of participants by

Table 1: Demographic characteristics of participants by group

The results of independent sample t-tests indicated that, for the mean pre-test A brand , the Holden Low group scored significantly lower on

the Holden and Ford compared to the Holden High and the Control Audi groups, and lower on Mitsubishi compared to the Control Audi group.

The Holden High group also scored significantly higher on Holden when compared to the Control Audi group (table not shown).

The results of the repeated measures t-tests for each participant group are outlined in Table 2. Overall, the mean Holden A brand scores of

participants assigned to the experimental Holden Monaro group did not increase after exposure to the simulated computer game. However, when examined within the sub-classification groups based on pre-existing Holden attitudes, the mean attitude scores of Holden Low

participants (n = 25) increased significantly after playing the computer game (15.48 to 17.68, p = 0.002). Participants sub-classified as Holden High (n = 63) showed no significant change between pre- and post-play. Somewhat unexpectedly, the mean Toyota A brand scores of

the Holden High participants declined significantly after playing the game (21.98 to 21.19, p = 0.001). Control group participants randomly

assigned an Audi car showed no significant differences in A brand for either the Holden or foil brands (Ford, Mitsubishi, Toyota).

Table 2: Repeated measures t -tests for A b r a n d differences by

Table 2: Repeated measures t-tests for A brand differences by group

Chi-square analyses were used to examine group differences with respect to unprompted and prompted recall of Holden Monaro cars (see Table 3). Participants sub-classified as belonging to the Holden High group (n = 51, 65.4% of the sample) were significantly more likely to

display unaided recall of the embedded brand (Holden Monaro) than participants sub-classified as Holden Low (n = 18, 23.1% of the sample)

and participants assigned to the Control Audi group (n = 9, 11.5% of the sample). Both Holden Low (n = 22, 22.9% of the sample) and

Holden High (n = 58, 60.4% of the sample) group participants were significantly more likely to recall the embedded brand (Holden Monaro)

when prompted than control group participants (n = 16, 16.7% of the sample).

control group participants (n = 16, 16.7% of the sample). Table 3: Unaided and prompted recall

Table 3: Unaided and prompted recall of the 'Holden Monaro' car brand by group


The findings of the current research do not support H la in that participants with a pre-existing positive attitude (Holden High ) towards the

embedded product (Holden Monaro) did not show increases in their brand attitudes after exposure to this brand during their computer game-play. These findings are not consistent with the 'weak theory of advertising' and may indicate that this theory does not currently

transfer to emerging advertising mediums such as product placement in computer games.

Since Holden Low participants (those who were less positively predisposed to the embedded brand) displayed significant increases in their

A brand , no support was found for H lb . These somewhat counterintuitive findings paradoxically suggest that active brand placements, where

the branded product forms a natural part of the game-play, may provide marketers with a means of converting player attitudes towards the embedded brand product. These findings do accord somewhat with the results from Cowley and Barron's (2008) study of prominent product placement in a television programme medium. Participants who reported a high liking for the sitcom Seinfeld, while being able to better recall the brands after exposure to the prominently placed brands within the television programme, reported reduced A hmnd .

Conversely, participants who reported lower levels of liking of Seinfeld were not as likely to recall the product placement, but subsequently reported increased A brand . Caution is needed, however, in generalising these results. First, additional research is required to determine

whether these findings generalise beyond tertiary students. Second, and perhaps more important, it remains to be seen whether the current findings will be temporally stable or an artefact of the relative newness of the medium. The 'weak theory of advertising' suggests that television advertising provides companies with a means of 'preaching to the converted' and is therefore useful in reminding current users of a brand why they like it. But the converse also holds: non-users of the brand are less likely to be affected by television advertising. The key issue in relation to active product placement in computer games is whether the ability to convert consumer attitudes represents a transient phenomenon that will dissipate once the marketplace is saturated with interactive product placements or whether the embedded and seamless nature of the brand placements will protect against media 'wearout'.

Support was found for H2. Experimental group participants classified with pre-existing high positive attitudes towards the embedded brand product displayed significantly higher levels of both spontaneous and prompted recall than experimental group participants classified with low pre-existing attitudes towards Holden cars (Holden Low ). These findings align with those of Nelson (2002), Nelson et al. (2004) and

Schneider and Cornwell (2005), and indicate that interacting with a product while playing a computer game increases an individual's ability to recall that item when prompted.

It is important to note the practical implications arising from the findings of the current study. Blattburg and Deighton (1991) have recommended that marketing managers develop bifocal strategies aimed at acquiring new consumers and retaining existing consumers. The current findings suggest that computer games are an excellent medium to pursue both these goals. Future research is required to examine the utility of multifaceted marketing campaigns whereby traditional mass-media communication is used as a 'defensive' mechanism to retain consumers and reinforce brand loyalty, while product placement within computer games is used to recruit new consumers to the brand. For example, a television advertisement for a brand may be formulated to 'remind' users of the brand without making any comparisons to rival brands or attempting any other form of brand communication. Simultaneous product placement in computer/video games likely to be purchased by the brand's target demographic would enable prospects to interact and experience the brand in a virtual environment. The game could also be designed to alert prospects to the benefits of the embedded brand over rival brands.

The inclusion of the control condition served to test whether merely playing a simulated computer car game could influence A brand scores.

The finding of no significant change to Holden A brand among participants in the control condition (Control Audi ) suggests that the change in

Holden A brand scores among the Holden Low and Holden High conditions are the result of the intervention and are not spurious.


As with all research, the current study was not without limitations. First, the sample sizes were modest and would benefit from increased sizes for each of the treatment groups. As such, caution is required in extrapolating the findings to larger and more diverse populations. Future research would benefit from including a more diverse sample of participants, particularly those with higher levels of discretionary income. This type of study would enable an examination of the power of computer game product placements to influence purchase intention (PI). It is important to note that PI is a distinct construct from A brand and is thought to be a more powerful predictor of consumer

behaviour (Spears & Singh 2004).

In terms of the methodology, consideration should also be given to the manner in which the pre-testing of A brand in relation to the Holden

brand may have acted as a primer for recall. Although the present study made use of foils (Ford, Toyota and Mitsubishi) in an attempt to control for this effect, this may nonetheless have influenced the study's results.

Given the nascent nature of the use of computer games as a medium for product placement, further research is required to identify ways to maximise communication channels between organisations wishing to embed a product, and computer game designers. Of particular import is obtaining the right balance in relation to creative control, which must now embrace not only the 'wants' of the consumer but also those of large advertising agencies or organisations. Empirical research is also needed to examine brand recall and changes in A brand with

respect to purchase intent. This is a crucial area of research as it could be argued that non-users of Holden brand cars would be unlikely to purchase or play a computer game that featured only this brand. By extension, this would reduce the potential for changes in A brand to

occur. An examination of implicit memory processes would be of use in this particular regard. Future research is therefore needed to ascertain the efficacy of computer games that feature numerous other brands yet still ensure that players are 'forced' to use a specific brand at designated stages. For example, a car-racing simulation may include different scenarios to further the progress of the game, one of which revolves around using only a particular brand of car (the one deliberately placed by the marketer). Another way to direct exposure towards the brand is to make sure that it is offered as one of two options for the player and that it is clearly superior to the other choice. This would ensure that players used the brand, and would also create an illusion of choice. The planned standardised metric being devised by Activision (Nasdaq: ATVI, 2004) and Nielsen Entertainment will provide future researchers with a more definitive mechanism to evaluate the level to which exposure to in-game product placements impacts on player behaviour.


Computer/video games are emerging as a potentially powerful medium for marketers to use as part of their marketing communications activities (see LoPiccolo 2004; Chambers 2005; ESA 2007b; Informa Telecoms and Media Group 2006; Molesworth 2006; Nelson et al. 2006). The findings of the current study suggest that this medium shows promise in assisting marketers in changing attitudes towards brand placements that form an active part of the gamer's play experience. It is possible that, in the near future, the practice of product

placement within entertainment programmes may be used to specifically target elusive consumer segments with brand communications seamlessly woven into near real-life simulations, designed to remind consumers that a brand exists as well as providing a means of interaction. Such advances will broaden the range of product categories that can be used interactively during game play and therefore enhance the capacity for marketers to foster positive brand attitude dispositions among players with a pre-existing low attitude towards the embedded brand product.


1. The Australian-designed and manufactured Holden Monaro is currently marketed as a Pontiac GTO in North America.


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Thomas MacKay completed his honours degree in the Department of Marketing at Monash University in 2005. He currently works as a project manager for the consumer sector of Taylor Nelson Sofres in Melbourne.

Michael Ewing is Professor and Head of the Department of Marketing at Monash University. His research interests include advertising evaluation, the technology – communications interface, health promotion and brand management. His work has appeared in Information Systems Research, the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Advertising, Journal of Business Research, International Journal of Advertising, Business Horizons, the Journal of Small Business Management and Industrial

Marketing Management.

Fiona Newton completed her PhD in psychology before joining the Department of Marketing at Monash University to pursue her interest in health promotion and behaviour change communication. Fiona's research has examined the psychosocial well-being of prostate cancer patients, rural men's health issues, and HIV/AIDS health promotion. Her work has been published in the International Journal of Advertising, British Journal of Urology, Australian Journal of Rural Health and the International Journal of Urology.

Lydia Windisch is currently completing her doctoral thesis in psychology and is a Research Fellow in the Department of Marketing at Monash University. Her research covers cross-cultural and indigenous psychologies, social and health promotion, and public policy.

Address correspondence to: Professor Michael Ewing, Head of Department of Marketing, Monash University, PO Box 197, Caulfield East, Vic 3145, Australia. Email: mailto://

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